Mojo MAY 2001 - by Andy Gill


From Roxy Music and David Bowie to James, U2 and his own ambient experiments, Brian Eno has been on a one-man crusade to redefine the art of the producer. This is a cultural enterprise, he tells Andy Gill

It would have been difficult, observing Brian Eno's early career as furnisher of funny noises to the original Roxy Music, to predict that three decades on he would be one of the most successful producers of pop, directly responsible for redeveloping the sounds and careers of David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and James. All the more amazing, considering his earliest forays into production involved avant-garde composers like Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, and pro-am classical ensemble The Portsmouth Sinfonia. But it's the application of ideas drawn from these interests that are at the root of his success as a producer, enabling him to expand his clients' musical ambitions into uncharted areas and instill in artists a sense of the limitless possibilities of music.

Some producers are primarily organizers, while others are sonically active. Which are you?

I first became a producer because I thought I'd be good at the sonic aspect of it, but it turns out that what I'm good at is the structural and motivational aspects. I think people appreciate me for being completely candid and opinionated. People like a strong opinion, even if they don't agree with it, and I'm not at all interested in people's feelings. My job is to make the best music that I can imagine, and if I think it isn't getting there, I want everyone to know! The other thing I do is co-write the music: I come up with the ideas for beginnings or I'll increase the tempo by 20bpm, to send things off in a new direction. Which, as a non-member of the band, I can do, because there's no agenda attached to it.

Are there any sounds or strategies that you would consider characteristic of an Eno production?

Strategies more than sounds, really. I'm always asking people, Why are you doing it? If it isn't clear to you, there's something wrong. The other strategy is to make music so compelling in its skeletal form that mixing is not an issue. Because if the mix is a problem, it's not the mix that's the problem. I want as many problems solved as early as possible. My pressure is to try to make the piece complete at every stage, rather than a piece of scaffolding that we might hang some clever stuff off.

On early recordings, production was largely a matter of microphone placement and room ambience. What are the factors you consider most important in recording today?

Well, funnily enough, exactly the same factors! On the new James record, we decide to try something which nobody's done for many years which is, write all the songs, rehearse them, get the structures right, then play them live in front of people, and only then record them. When did you last hear of a band doing that, other than on their first album? I chose a brilliant, old-school engineer, Gary Langan, who's fabulous. The result was that we got a recording when you can just sit at a desk and push the faders up in a straight line, and it sounds fucking great!

That has sort of pre-empted my next question, which is whether you prefer working with musicians individually or the band as a whole?

Generally, I much prefer working with the group, because people in groups tend to make much more interesting decisions. On their own, it's easy for everybody to get into screwdriver mode, where you're totally lost in the details, rather than the whole picture. If you say to someone, We're setting aside the afternoon for you to do the guitar part, do you think they're going to take any less than the whole afternoon to do it?

What effect has the advent of computer technology had on recording?

Computers are hopeless! They're so under-evolved! Of course, they offer the promise of the future of music, but Jesus, they're badly designed! The fact that three million years of muscular evolution should end up being translated into an index finger clicking a mouse, this is the problem. Think of any analogue instrument: playing a guitar, for instance, you're doing six things at once. I believe musicians have shrunk to fit the pathetic nature of the interfaces.

Is your primary aim as a producer to help realise an artist's vision or to expand it?

To reconcile the two. I want to make music that I like, so I start with likely candidates, and say, Look, this the kind of music that I imagine should be the future but I also want them to say to me, Yes, but your picture's incomplete and this is what we imagine. It's through collaboration that you hope to get something that wouldn't have occurred otherwise.

With artists you've worked with over a series of albums, does your function alter as you get more familiar with each other?

Yes. In each case, my function has changed to being more involved in the actual composition process. That's partly because after a while, I can understand what turns singers on. As a singer myself, I've got some sense of what that should be, so I've got more involved with trying to make things that make people excited about singing.

Do you operate on instinct in the studio?

A lot of the time, but one good example of a very counter-intuitive instinctive decision on Achtung Baby. We were close to the deadline, about a month to go, and everything was chaotic. I said, I think we should take a two-week holiday and not listen to any of this stuff we've been doing while we're away. We'd been digging this hole for such a long time, and it was a good idea to outside of it for a while. It worked perfectly, we finally got some perspective on it.

What do you think has been your greatest contribution to production?

That's a good question. Ten years ago, I would have said, Making people realise that the studio was a place where music is made, rather than simply recorded. But I'm so fed up with that process now that I don't want that written on my gravestone! I think what I am most pleased about now is making the point that what we're are doing in the studio is a cultural enterprise; we should think of ourselves as artists, the way that composers, painters, filmmakers or anyone else working in culture would think of themselves. Stop treating it as a hobby, and try to make a music that can accommodate all the things we are interested in.